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 Post subject: North India, South India and ancient Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Fri Sep 22, 2006 2:33 am 
North India, South India and ancient Sri Lanka

by Kamalika Pieris
@ The Island


Vijaya, whose family initially lived in Bengal, came into Sri Lanka from Gujerat, having called at Supara, on the west coast of India. They landed at Tambapanni near Puttalam. Soon after, there were migrations from the north east of India, probably from Bengal and Orissa. These settlers had landed at Trincomalee. A third group of settlers came from the upper Indus, which is today in Pakistan.

Sri Lanka had links with North India as well as South India during its ancient and medieval periods.

Settlers migrated into Sri Lanka from the north west and north east of India as well as from the Indus valley region, now in Pakistan. The Sinhala language shows an affinity with both eastern and western Indo-Aryan languages. This supports the view that there were migrations from north east and north west of ancient India. The distance between Sri Lanka and the closest linguistic group indicates that these migrants came by sea and not land.

In the first recorded migration, Vijaya, whose family initially lived in Bengal, came into Sri Lanka from Gujerat, having called at Supara, on the west coast of India. They landed at Tambapanni near Puttalam. He came into an inhabited country. Soon after, there were migrations from the north east of India, probably from Bengal and Orissa. These settlers had landed at Trincomalee which meant that they had come from the Bay of Bengal.

There is evidence to indicate that a third group of settlers came from the upper Indus, which is today in Pakistan. Some of the place names in Sri Lanka indicate a connection with the Indus region. Onescritus, who was the pilot of the ship in which Alexander sailed down the Indus, in the 4th century BC, speaks of Sri Lanka in his writings based on this Journey. This is the earliest reference to Sri Lanka in any written work and indicates that settlers came from the Indus region. These settlers did not migrate directly to Sri Lanka. They had come down to an intermediate area and then moved to Sri Lanka from there.

They brought with them the two major cultures nurtured in north India, the Mohenjodaro-Harappa, culture and the Aryan culture. Some of the symbols of unknown significance in certain old Sinhalese Brahmi inscriptions have parallels among the symbols of the Indus script. Even the notion of the lion-killer can be found on a seal from Mohendojaro. The Harappa culture was a ‘spectacular culture’ existing between 3000 BC to 1500 BC. This civilisation extended beyond the Indus plain to northern Rajastan and the Kathiawar region in western India and goes even further east and south. There were cities in Sind, Rajasthan, Punjab, Gujerat and Baluchistan. Harappa was a very advanced urban civilisation, with a highly developed municipal life. Almost every house had wells, drains, and bathrooms. Streets were wide and straight with elaborate drainage system, which included soakage pits for sediment. Well-fired bricks and glazed pottery were used. Tin, copper, and precious stones had been obtained from places beyond India.

The Aryan tribes started in Upper Asia and fanned out into Europe and Asia from there. They arrived in India around 800 BC. They inhabited the land stretching from eastern Afghanistan to the upper Ganges with a concentration in the Ganges-Jamuna area. They were primarily an agricultural and pastoral people but trade, industry and urban life developed later. They had kings and elaborate administrative machinery. Attention was paid to dress and ornament. There were chariot races, hunting, music and song. However, the Harappa culture was more advanced than that of the Aryans. There were other differences as well. Harappa worshipped the bull, the Aryans worshipped the cow.

There were about 16 major states in north India around 600 BC Kamboja, which occupied the extreme north-western area bordering Afghanistan and Pakistan was one of these states. People from Kamboja, came to Sri Lanka and were living as a distinct social group constituted into a corporation in the 2nd century BC. Several early brahmi inscriptions refer to the Kamboja, and an early Pali text refers to a Kambojagama in Ruhuna. This group may have migrated from the upper Indus, to Gujerat where they settled for some time, before they migrated to Sri Lanka.

The arrivals did not end there. A regular trade route had emerged between a seaport on north coast of Ceylon and Tambralipti in Bengal. (Tamluk) by the Maurya period. Historical chronicles unanimously state that many noble families and artisans arrived from Magadha along with the Buddhist missionaries and made Sri Lanka their home. Much later, in the mid 14 century, Rajputs had settled in Sri Lanka. P. E. E. Fernando, has pointed out that names like Suba, Amara, Rupa, Jaya, Vira such as Vijayatunga, Jayapala, Rajakaruna, Devaraja, and Vimalasena are of Rajput origin. Some names are associated only with Rajputs, such as Satarasinha. This may be due to the recruitment of Rajput mercenaries into the king’s army in the 13 country.

Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Nepal were a part of ancient North India. This region was invaded and ruled over by Persians, Bactrian Greeks and by several Central Asian dynasties. The Indian subcontinent was eventually criss-crossed with trade routes, which linked with central Asia and western Asia. The result was an intermingling of Greek, Persian, Central Asian and Indian cultures. Sri Lanka would have received some exposure to these European and Central Asian cultures well before it established its own links with Persia. It is important to note, however, that Sri Lanka was never the baby sister of north India. North India was in no position to look after a baby sister. It was ruled in sections, by different dynasties, which kept rising and falling. Sri Lanka was treated as an independent state. It had developed it own sophisticated urban culture by 10th century BC.

Sinhala kings had continuous contact with the various states of north India. The consort of Vijayabahu I, Lilavati, was a princess of Oudh. Nissankamalla maintained contact with Orissa, Bengal, and Gujerat. Long before that king Dharmasoka, contacted Devanampiyatissa, (250-210 BC) and Kithsirimevan (301-328 AD) sent an embassy to Samudragupta. These should be treated as evidence of continuing contact with the states of north India, not as a series of kangaroo leaps.

The Dravidian culture popularly associated with South India is not South Indian in origin. It started in the Mediterranean region, and moved from there to north India, to the east of the Indus. Brahui, a Dravidian language, is spoken even today in Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan, and Baluchistan. There are Dravidian monuments in Karachi, and there is Dravidian influence in the Rigveda. Thereafter the Dravidians moved down to an intermediate region, probably Gujerat or Kathiawar and came into South India from there. Tradition says Tamil people came from this intermediate region.

The culture did not remain pure Dravidian either. The traditions mentioned in the Sangam literature show considerable Aryan influence. Damilas whose names appear in Brahmi inscriptions in Sri Lanka, bear Aryan names and appear to have come under Aryan influence before they moved to Sri Lanka. The Mediterranean influence is not confined to the Dravidian culture. The Stone Age (megalithic) culture of south India, dating around 1200 BC, is similar to the Mediterranean stone age culture and may have arrived in South India from western Asia.

Tamilnadu was politically isolated from the rest of India. It was an independent kingdom most of the time. It was not a part of the Maurya Empire, though Andhra Pradesh was. It was culturally isolated as well. The language used in north and central India was Prakrit. Prakrit was also used in the south in Andhra, Karnataka and northern Tamilnadu. But in southern Tamilnadu all inscriptions are in Tamil. Southern Tamilnadu and Kerala are the only regions in the whole of south Asia, including India, where inscriptions are in a language not belonging to the Indo-Aryan group. There was a difference in seacraft as well. Tamilnadu used the catamaran, the rest of India used the outrigger canoe.

Tamil culture was not the dominant culture of south India. Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh developed their own cultures, based on Telengu and Kannada languages. Even Kerala, which was initially a part of the Tamil kingdom, developed as separate culture based on Malayalam, a language derived from Tamil. Kerala became a separate region about the seventh century AD.

Some argue that because South India is closer to Sri Lanka than north India, Tamilnadu region would have exerted influence on ancient Sri Lanka. It is suggested that Sri Lanka would have been colonised by Tamils from South India- That is doubtful. Firstly, very little is known about the prehistory of Tamilnadu. Secondly, when Sri Lanka separated from the Indian subcontinent, about 12 million years ago, the island consisted only of the south, south western and central parts of present day Sri Lanka. The first settlements were in these areas, not in the area near modem Tamilnadu. Siran Deraniyagala says that humans probably arrived in Sri Lanka at the same time as to India.

Thirdly, colonisation myths indicate that it was the Sinhalese who colonised the Tamil region, not the other way round. Kerala legends say that Kerala was colonised by the Sinhalese. The ancient Tamil word for coconut is Ham and the coconut tree was called lla maram, which could mean tree from Sri Lanka. Among the early Brahmi inscriptions in Tamilnadu there is a reference to ‘Ila householder’ referring to persons from Sri Lanka.

K. Indrapala in his book The evolution of an ethnic identity: Tamils in Sri Lanka 300 BCE to 1200 CE (2005), says that stone age and iron age culture came to Sri Lanka from Tami1nadu. He points out that prehistoric urn burials at Pomparippu in the Wilpattu area are similar to those on opposite coast of Tamilnadu in Adichchanallur area. However, burial sites have been discovered not only in Pomparippu but also on the opposite side at Yan oya. Similar pots were found in Kollankanatta and inland sides such as Anuradhapura and Galsohonkanatta. The settlements covered the whole of northern Sri Lanka.

Stone Age culture arrived in South India around 1200 BC. It went first to Maharashtra then to Karnataka. And from there, it went along the Krishna river to Andhra Pradesh. It diffused into Tamilnadu from Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh: Early Stone Age sites have been discovered in both north and south India with the sole exception of Tamilnadu. They are found in abundance in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala, with very few sites in Tami1nadu. The stone age (mesolithic) tools of Sri Lanka are similar to those found in Karnataka.

K. Indrapala says that everything that happened to Sri Lanka between the 4th century BC upto the 13 century AD, was due to Tamil influence. This is unlikely. The Tamil region was not in a position to influence Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka was way ahead politically. It had a centralised state with a strong monarchy. By 3rd century BC, Anuradhapura was the largest city south of Ujjain. Ujjain is in Madhya Pradesh, North India. Tamilnadu on the other hand was an unstable, disunited, fragmented region ruled by four separate dynasties. Pallava, and Chola ruled in upper Tamilnadu, Pandya in lower Tamilnadu and Chera in Kerala. The Cheras, Cholas, and Pandyans were continually at war with each other. They were fairly equally balanced in political and military strength and there was a seesawing of power. There was considerable autonomy at village and district level.

Trade and commerce was more advanced in Sri Lanka than in Tamilnadu. A gold coin used 7th and 8th century Sri Lanka known as llak-kacu (the Sri Lanka coin), was used in south India.

It is mentioned in Cola inscriptions from about 937 AD. Nilakanta Sastri says that this coin was older than south Indian coins, and had a continuous currency. In Sri Lanka, external trade was under the king. Trade was not a royal monopoly in Tamilnadu. It was a purely private enterprise even in the Cola empire of the 10th century AD. The earliest inscriptions regarding merchants and maritime trade in South India date only from the ninth century.

The Sinhala state saw the importance of historical records. It maintained histories, of which the best known is the Mahavamsa. Tamilnadu region has no comparable historical records. There is so little information on the period between 3rd to 6th century AD that it is considered a dark age in Tamilnadu history. Tamilnadu was invaded in or around the 4th century, but it we do not know by whom. Tamil history is confined to the Sangam literature.

The Sangam literature is primarily a collection of poems from the gatherings of poets at the sangams (assemblies) held in Madurai. Nothing remains of the first two Sangams, except the belief that the first Sangam was attended by the gods. At the 3rd sangam, over 2000 poems were composed and these have survived. They are dated between 2 BC - 2 AD. They include love poems, and odes to kings. Foodstuffs from Sri Lanka are mentioned in one poem. These poems form the major portion of the Tamil literature of this time. It was difficult to date this literature. Dates became possible only because of a reference to Gajabahu I of Sri Lanka found in Silappadilcvam. According to Romila Thapar, Tamil and Kannada literature developed only around 6 AD.


Paranavitana has stated that the art and architecture of Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa was indigenous to Sri Lanka. In South India the popular form was rock cut architecture (bas-relief). In Sri Lanka, free standing statues had been erected from earliest times. Pallava craftsmen have done some work here. This is shown in the Isurumuniya carvings and the Nalanda Gedige, which is in the late Pallava style and can be dated to the 8th century. However, these styles did not take root in Sri Lanka. The Gedige is the only one of its kind in Sri Lanka. The Chola occupation did not influence Sinhala architecture either. The capitals of Buddhist temples in Polonnaruwa differed from those in the Siva devales of Polonnaruwa. The Upulvan shrine at Devundara "showed a restraint in the application of ornamentation that is foreign to Dravidian styles of all periods".

Sri Lanka had superior science and technology. The techniques of chiselling hard gneiss developed by the Sinhala craftsman in 1st and 2nd centuries AD, were far more advanced than those existing in South India. The Sinhalese worked in stone on a colossal scale unknown to Indians. The Sinhala craftsman had mastered the art of reduction of span and knew to build vaults of brick, using the corbelling system, as against the diagonal reduction of the Hindu shrines by the use of stone blocks. Vaulted brick buildings such as Lankatilaka and Thuparama do not have prototypes in South India. Hydraulic knowledge in Sri Lanka was superior to that of South India. The reservoir sluices in Sri Lanka were designed to handle large bodies of water. Nuwara wewa sluice outlet measured 9000 square centimetres at one point. The piston sluices in Karnataka and Tamilnadu reservoirs could handle only small bodies of water. They had an outlet aperture of 410.5 square centimetres.

It is suggested that since Jaffna is so close to Tamilnadu, it would have been influenced by Tamil culture. That is not so. Ancient Jaffna was populated by the Sinhalese and came under the rule of the Sinhala king. The place names in Jaffna only make sense if they are seen as translations of Sinhala names. All place names that end with "vil" (means ‘bow’ in Tamil) and I pay (means ‘net’ or ‘sail’ in Tamil) are Tamilisations of Sinhala words. Kokuvil was Kokavila, and Manipai was Mampe. Vallikamam and Vimankam are meaningless in Tamil but make sense if the villages originally bore the Sinhala, names Valigama and Vimangama. Place names like Mattakalapu are direct borrowings from Sinhala. Madakalapuwa in Tamil is "chattakuli". Some place names like Polvattai come from Sinhala used in the 14th century. The methods used for branding of cattle with the status and family of the owner has been described as "peculiarly Sinhalese". Until the end of the 17th century, Jaffna was an island separated form the mainland by a narrow strip of water. That is why it was called Nagadipa. It joined the mainland only in the 18th century.

Over the centuries, the Sinhalese have preserved a language and a religion, which have their roots in northern India. Buddhism came from north India, not South India. Buddhism in South India was dependent on Sri Lanka. Most of the Pali works attributed to South Indian scholars are expositions of the teachings of the Mahavihara. Sinhala language belongs to the Indo-Aryan group of languages. It is similar to Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Gujerati, and other Indo-Aryan languages of north India. The oldest of these languages is Vedic Sanskrit. The word "Sinhala" has been derived from the Sanskrit word ‘Sinhala’. Even today, words used in north India such as ‘Lok Sabha’ and ‘Madhya Pradesh’ can be understood by a Sinhala speaking person. Sinhala language has no resemblance to Tamil. The Sinhala speaker cannot understand Tamil. The scripts are different. Linguistically too, Sinhala differs from Tamil in its basic characteristics.

The Tamils who came over to Sri Lanka adopted the Sinhala style. The brahmi rock inscriptions show that the early Tamils used the Sinhala language. Inscriptions also show that Tamil rulers of the 5th century governed like,‘like Sinhala rulers.’ They recorded their donations to Buddhist institutions in Sinhala. They took on titles used by the Sinhala rulers. King Pandu, took the title Buddhadasa. One of the Chola rulers was known as Sanghabodhi.

Historical records show that there was formal migration from north India, but there would have been arrivals from the rest of India as well. People came into Sri Lanka from all four sides of India, north, south, east and west. They came by land and sea. Those who came by land, and this does not mean only Tamils, came across the Palk Strait, using the islands of Jaffna peninsula as stepping stones. Since Sri Lanka was in the centre of trade routes, ships came from western India. Maligatenna inscription given in very early Brabmi script indicates that Sri Lanka mariners too engaged in voyages to western part of India.

Historians seen reluctant to compare the influence of north and south India over ancient Sri Lanka They agree that there was north Indian influence, but try to find south Indian links as well. W. I. Siriweera, in his useful work, History of Sri Lanka has given 16 pages to the Anuradhapura period, and 10 to the ‘south Indian factor’ including the Chola occupation. R. A. L. H. Gunawardana, according to K. Indrapala, has said that the Tamil influence on Sri Lanka I would have been considerable.’ Gunawardana thinks that it ‘is quite likely that some Sinhala words may have a Tamil origin.’ However, historians have not been able to prove that Sinhala culture was shaped by Tamil culture. The boundaries of Tamil country given in works like Tolkappiyam (2 AD) are Tirupati in north, Kumari (Cape Comorin) on south, and the sea on east and west coast. Sri Lanka is not included.


The writings of S Arasaratnam, P. E. E. Fernando, R. A. L. H. Gunawardana, P. A. T. Gunasinghe, K. Indrapala, S. Kiribamune, R. C. Majumdar, V. L. B. Mendis, S. Natesan, C. W. Nicholas, S. Paranavitana, L. S. Perera, R. Thapar, and V. Vitharana were used for this essay.


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